By Dr. Jerry Rankin
Arriving in Surabaya today brings a flood of memories of our time in this city more than 30 years ago. After nine years in an isolated East Java outpost we were deployed to this metropolitan area that is now booming with four million people. We are grateful for what God was able to do through us but continue to carry regrets that we were not able to make a greater impact on this largest Muslim country in the world.
The prevailing strategy when we went to the field was to seek pockets of response and pour yourself into people who were receptive to the gospel. This had been engrained in my thinking during seminary mission classes and in on-the-field orientation. Even renown missiologists such as Donald McGavran advised “holding lightly” with limited personnel and resources those places that required sowing and no harvest was evident.
When our evangelistic efforts encountered Muslim fanatics the response was to move on. I am embarrassed when asked about my Muslim strategy as we really didn’t have one. We just diligently probed and faithfully witnessed until someone showed an interest. The result, as one of my colleagues described it, was finding that response was in direct proportion to the distance from the main highway. In other words it was in remote villages and among marginalized people that we found receptivity to the gospel. That is not to disparage the worth of every soul, but in terms of a larger strategy, the resulting churches had little impact on society.
We embraced a concept that is still prevalent among many today that the task of evangelism and missions is to populate heaven with as many people as possible. Nothing wrong with that, but it does short-change the mission mandate of our Lord who demanded that we preach the gospel to every creature and make disciples of all peoples. Evangelism is proclaiming the gospel, anywhere and everywhere. Missions is taking that gospel proclamation and penetrating lostness by making the gospel accessible to all.
More recently someone calculated that we could deploy all our missionaries to seven countries and likely double the number of baptisms. If we would concentrate resources on Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Korea and the Philippines–all open and responsive countries–a great harvest could be reached. But where would that leave all the rest of the world that God loves and died to save?
There has been a radical shift in mission priorities to recognize the apostolic task is to reach the unreached, take the gospel to all peoples and confront the nations with the claims of Christ. One cannot determine response as that is the work of the Holy Spirit, but as Paul said in Romans 10, they can’t believe if they have never heard and they can never hear unless someone is sent and proclaims the gospel.
The focus of contemporary missions has changed. It is compelled by the purpose that everyone should have the opportunity to hear, understand and respond to the gospel in their own cultural context. That has resulted in a radical shift in deployment of missionary personnel to places where there are no churches to bear witness locally and where entire people groups have not even heard of Jesus. Twenty years ago only 4% of missionaries were going to the unreached; now 60% are going to the frontiers.
That’s not to disparage those who continue to serve on traditional fields as they are equipping churches to push to the frontiers of lostness in their own country. They are training leaders and missionaries in national churches to take the gospel cross-culturally. When we were in Indonesia there were 30-40 missionaries families in East Java, but now there are only two. But the previous generation of missionaries have left behind hundreds of Javanese churches that continue to grow and multiple with amazing effectiveness in a hostile religious environment.
We rejoice in the harvest and are grateful to find new pockets of response, but our hearts are burdened not just for the lost, but for those who are alienated from God and without hope because they still do not even have access to the gospel. We grieve for the multitudes who are dying before anyone comes to engage them with a Christian witness. Missions is no longer about how many can be won but how quickly can we get the gospel to all people.
Dr. Jerry Rankin served as president of the International Mission Board from June 1993 to July 2010 and blogs at The Rankin File.